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Arafat and the struggle for Palestine

November 12, 2004 | Page 8

FOR DECADES, Yasser Arafat has stood at the head of the Palestinian struggle for justice. Today, he lies in a Paris hospital, with news reports suggesting he is gravely ill and may soon die.

Over the years, Arafat's political influence--as well as his political principles--have gone through many transformations. His departure from the Palestinian struggle--which is all but certain, even if he survives his current illness--will transform the situation yet again.

Here, TOUFIC HADDAD, a Palestinian activist living in Ramallah, looks at the events that shaped Arafat's political life--and how Arafat in turn shaped the Palestinian struggle for national liberation.

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LIKE MANY of his generation, Yasser Arafat's most formative experience was the Palestinian Nakba in 1948. The Nakba, which means catastrophe in Arabic, refers to the systematic campaign waged by Zionist paramilitaries between 1947 and 1949 to "empty" Palestine of its Arab inhabitants in order to set up the "Jewish state" of Israel. Some 800,000 Palestinians were driven into exile.

Arafat, who was 19 at the time, fought in the resistance, but ended up in the Egyptian-administered Gaza Strip at the end of the war, a refugee like three-quarters of the Palestinian population in Gaza.

Soon after the Nakba, Arafat went to Cairo to study, where he became active in student politics and was elected president of the Union of Palestinian Graduates in 1952. He then moved to Kuwait, a British protectorate at the time, to work as an engineer.

Two issues defined the political consciousness of exiled Palestinians in Kuwait at the time. First was the feeling of humiliation and betrayal at the loss of Palestine in 1948, compounded by the way the defeat exposed the incompetence of Arab states and armies.

The Arab states in 1948 were largely run by puppet governments loyal to England or France, and had been too unorganized and outgunned to prevent Zionist forces from carrying out the ethnic cleansing of Palestine. By contrast, the Zionist movement had been preparing for the military conquest of Palestine since the beginning of its colonization effort at the end of the 19th century--and actively courted Western imperialist states to gain their support of its goal.

The second defining issue was the rise of Arab nationalism. In 1954, Gamal Abdel Nasser had come to power in Egypt after a coup against King Farouk, a stooge of the British. Nasser's ascendance to power inspired millions of people throughout the Arab world. He posed a challenge to Western imperialism and served as a lightning rod that united the Arab world as a territorial, economic and political entity.

Within this framework, Palestine became the defining issue for the Arab nationalist movement, with many Palestinians becoming active adherents to the cause.

Together with some comrades from school in Egypt and from Kuwait, Arafat formed Fatah in 1958, an organization dedicated to liberating Palestine through armed struggle.

It is important, however, to emphasize that Arafat was not alone in his organizing. Other influential leaders formed Fatah with him, and Fatah wasn't the only organization dedicated to the goal of Palestinian liberation. The Arab Nationalist Movement--which later developed into the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine--was also formed at the time, led by George Habash and other Palestinian refugees who had ended up in Lebanon.

Two main factors distinguished Fatah, however, allowing it to dominate Palestinian politics over the years.

First, Fatah explicitly rejected any political ideology other than "the liberation of Palestine." The organization picked this "strategy" because it wanted to attract as many forces as possible to its goal--while not alienating anyone (particularly those with financial resources). But this tactic more often than not led to opportunism, political compromises and failure, as Fatah watered down its program to seek alliances with other forces.

Second, Fatah was able to get Gulf petro-dollars from wealthy Palestinians and Arabs. Arafat felt this would secure Fatah's continuity and flexibility in a complicated organizational setting in which Palestinians were dispersed and largely looked upon as a destabilizing force by the Arab regimes. In the end, however, Fatah's dependency on massive oil money led to nepotism, corruption and the weakening of any genuine revolutionary activity.

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THE QUESTION of Palestine remained largely subsumed beneath the broader Arab-Israel conflict until Nasser's humiliating defeat in the 1967 war--which resulted in Israel's occupation of the Egyptian Sinai, the Golan Heights in Syria, and the West Bank and Gaza. This devastating defeat dealt a near-fatal blow to the idea of Pan-Arab unity, with Israel proving the valuable role it could play for Western interests--particularly the U.S., which was intent on keeping the Arab world divided geographically and politically demoralized.

The failure of Nasserism cleared the way for Palestinian groupings to engage in the struggle for liberation and return to Palestine themselves. Fatah emerged as one of the main armed factions, engaging in a legendary battle at Karameh in Jordan in 1968, which catapulted Arafat and his group to fame. In 1969, Arafat was elected head of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), a group previously established by Nasser to control Palestinian nationalist sentiment and organizing in 1964.

As head of the PLO, Arafat quickly recognized that despite widespread identification with the Palestinian cause among Arab workers, the Arab regimes feared the Palestinian national movement's revolutionary aims--particularly the Palestinian left, which advocated the overthrow of pro-western Arab regimes as well. As a consequence, Arafat tempered his politics to court these regimes and their money, believing that the Palestinian cause as well as his position would gain strength over time through these relationships.

In doing so, however, he pursued policies that rested on the idea that change could only come from above. This outlook removed any concept of social, political or individual transformation and liberation from the PLO's agenda. Instead, Arafat honed his skills at courting the powers that be, including the most reactionary Arab governments, while marginalizing his competitors in the PLO, thanks to te massive organizational and financial power he wielded.

This technique, combined with other historical circumstances, enabled Arafat to lead the PLO and the Palestinian cause to international prominence throughout the late 1960s and 1970s. Though some might consider this his "greatest achievement," it also illustrated that Palestinian liberation had been abandoned by the Arab regimes.

As early as 1974, Arafat made gestures toward the U.S. that he sought a two-state solution and was willing to accept humiliating concessions to bring it about--including recognition of the exclusively Jewish state of Israel; acceptance of United Nations Resolution 242 (which didn't even mention the Palestinians); and "rejection of terrorism," which was defined so broadly as to rule out resistance of any kind.

In 1982, Arafat and the PLO were exiled to Tunis after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Though the PLO fought valiantly and Arafat escaped repeated assassination attempts, his exile would gradually reduce his significance. Events in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza soon became the center of the Palestinian national movement. During the first Intifada, or uprising, in 1987, a new, local national elite began to develop, eclipsing Arafat's importance.

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ARAFAT WAS only able to "redeem" his political career by agreeing to the secretly negotiated Oslo Accords in 1993, which enshrined him and the newly formed Palestinian Authority (PA) as heads of a new statelet charged with protecting Israeli "security." PA officials were notoriously corrupt, with a 50,000-strong security apparatus that was quick to use repression.

The PA tried to sell Oslo as a "peace process" that would eventually lead to statehood, but Israel and the U.S. wanted a plan that would enable Israel to secure its control over all of historic Palestine, thereby consolidating its position as a permanent outpost of U.S. imperialism in the crucial region of the Middle East. Though the PA leadership made a series of concessions, the contradiction between the goal of statehood and U.S. imperial interests in the region prevented even this diminished goal from ever being achieved.

Arafat never attempted to link the Palestinian cause to its natural allies--the Arab and international working class, the only forces capable of really challenging U.S. imperial interests in the region, particularly its support for Israel.

Instead, Arafat tried to ingratiate himself within the ruling classes, believing that circumstances would magically arise to win Palestinian rights. He failed miserably.

Eventually, the Palestinian masses rose up in a second Intifada beginning in September 2000 to reject the continued colonization of their land during the "peace process." In turn, Israel, with U.S. approval, launched a total war against the Palestinian national movement, seeking to once and for all crush it.

Arafat was subsequently reduced from flying around the world as president of a state-in-the-making to virtual imprisonment in one building in his Ramallah compound, where he remained until his recent illness.

Despite his undoubted role as a symbol for the national movement, Arafat's legacy will be marred by the many concessions he made to the U.S.--which only served to legitimize Israel at the negotiating table while simultaneously leading the struggle for Palestinian liberation into a dead end from which it has yet to escape.

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